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Patient rights verses patient safety

Posted Sep 12 2008 11:55am

June - October 2002

On Thursday I came across this news item which highlights a problem that unfortunately Mr Man and I are all too familiar with.

It is unclear whether the patient in this article discharged himself from the secure unit at the hospital*, was given home leave, or whether he escaped after being given permission to walk around the hospital grounds, as several articles (all from the same news website) differ slightly in details, but whatever the case, one thing is clear: he had not been assessed adequately to determine whether he was a risk to himself or others.

Once again I am moving into an area that I wasn’t planning on blogging about yet, but during Mr Mans first hospital admission this was just one of the ongoing problems that we had. Again and again Mr Man was released into my care for home leave, placing me under unimaginable pressure for days at a time, as he was very suicidal, but also he suffered from command hallucinations telling him to kill others. The problem was partly that the consultant and some of the nursing staff simply refused to accept that Mr Man was even suffering from psychosis, despite an assessment proving otherwise**, but also, just as the news article explains regarding the patient John Barrett:

"…too much emphasis was placed on [the patients] wishes and he was not assessed adequately."

In Mr Mans case, he wanted to go home as often as possible since he didn’t believe that he was ill, as is common with all Schizophrenia sufferers, but also, due to his psychosis he believed that the staff were working for “the company” and trying to control him with the use of medication. Due to these feelings he was understandably very keen to go home each time the consultant or other staff members suggested home leave, but that doesn’t mean that he was well enough to. Often he asked for home leave himself, and the staff never refused as it was thought to be a “good sign” that he wanted to go home. It was very difficult for me to say no, as I was always asked in front of Mr Man, and of course I had to be careful that I didn’t end up looking like the “baddy” who was forcing him to stay in the hospital against his will, and thus lead him to believe that I too was working for “the company”.

Although he had been through an assessment to determine whether he was truly psychotic, to my knowledge he still hadn’t been through a risk assessment at this point, despite being admitted due to feeling suicidal. He had already been in hospital for nearly four months before a risk assessment was finally carried out on him after he had cut his arm with a razor blade within the hospital grounds, and he was found to be a high suicide risk***. These results were largely ignored much like the results of the other assessment, particularly by the consultant on the ward. Just one week after being assessed as a high suicide risk the consultant said Mr Man could go home for some leave. Thankfully his primary nurse, who had conducted the assessment, ignored the consultant and only allowed Mr Man home leave for a few hours. Two weeks later Mr Man made a serious suicide attempt whilst on the ward.

From these experiences it is easy to see why some psychiatric patients who are released from hospital go on to commit serious crimes, or commit suicide. Often patients are not adequately assessed, and even when they are a number of problems can arise:

  • There is a lack of communication between staff members (including consultants) about the level of risk.
  • Staff members (including consultants) do not update themselves by reading patient notes.
  • The responsibility is wrongly placed on the shoulders of an unqualified carer.
  • Staff members (including consultants) disagree on diagnosis or treatment including whether home leave is beneficial or not.
  • For a completely unknown reason to myself, risks are ignored by staff members (including consultants).
One factor that staff members fail to take into consideration is that whilst a patient may not be a serious risk to others or themselves whilst on the ward, the level of risk drastically increases once the patient leaves the hospital. This is largely due to the fact that the patient now has access to things previously not available to them whilst on the ward, such as knives, medication, alcohol, rope, and even privacy. This is one reason why the role of the carer is substantially more difficult than the role of the staff member, not to mention the fact that staff members work in shifts, whereas the carers role is an impossible 24 hours a day.

It was mentioned in one of the articles that the staff failed to heed the warnings of Johns partner. This is another problem that we faced often. In the days leading up to when Mr Man attempted suicide on the ward I had desperately tried to get someone to take my concerns seriously about his safety. Unfortunately no one did. This is something I will write about in more detail another time, but as Mr Mans current consultant has said recently “It’s a mistake not to listen to the carer”.

* One article states that John, the patient, could not be held at the hospital against his will, which is completely untrue. An “informal” patient, or someone who is in hospital voluntarily, can be detained for up to 6 hours by an authorised psychiatric nurse, whilst waiting for the doctor in charge to make an application to detain the patient for 72 hours under section 5 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Before the 72 hours has elapsed the doctor can then arrange for the patient to be held for a further 28 days under section 2, or 6 months under section 3.

** At the time it was explained to me that the assessments were “scored” out of 4; 1 being the lowest and 4 being the highest. In the psychosis assessment Mr Man “scored” 4, showing that he was suffering from a very high level of psychosis.

***In the risk assessment Mr Man “scored” 3, showing that he was a high suicide risk. The nurse who conducted the assessment explained that the only detail which prevented Mr Man from “scoring” 4 in the risk assessment was that he hadn’t decided on a location yet.

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